PRACTITIONERS' INSIGHTS

How to Break Into the US Big Law Market as a Foreign Law Student?

How to Break Into the US Big Law Market as a Foreign Law Student?

1. Why did you choose to do a US LLM?

Foundations of Common Law (I-IV) at the Tsinghua University School of Law first introduced to me the methodology of common law legal system education. While practicing in China, I started noticing traces of legal documents originating from the US or US firms in the Chinese legal market – for example, “free and clear of, and subject to no, pledges, mortgages, liens, security interests, charges, options, restrictions or other encumbrances” – which many PRC lawyers had the pleasure of reading and even translating. Besides, my practice focused on mergers and acquisitions, PE investments, and FDI and I often worked with clients or counterparties outside of China. All the above made doing an LLM in the US appealing. By the time I decided to pack my bag and pursue the LLM in 2014, I was also looking for a different experience and a change. The LLM program, I hoped, would boost my confidence (through culture and language exposure) and creativity (through enhanced and systematic knowledge about US laws and practices) and bring more opportunities for me professionally.

2. How did Penn LLM and passing the NY Bar exam help your legal career?

After moving to the US a couple of years back, my friend, a Xiamen University Ph.D. in Marine Biology, started her Master’s in Statistical Science (MSS) in 2019. As her Year of the Rat pick-me-up, she posted “After so many years, I finally understood that all the math I studied when I was in college and doing my Ph.D. (and back then I wondered how much help math would be to a biology profession) was to prepare me for today’s pursuing of the MSS.” To quote Steve Jobs: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” My time at Penn is a dot (or multiple dots), the benefit of which has manifested over time and will continue to manifest in the future.

At a higher level, my time at Penn, and in Philadelphia, helped me to bring a better perspective to being a lawyer. From time to time while studying at Penn, there were moments (like when I was watching TED Talks), when it occurred to me that “Oh, this is fascinating,” while parsing through the fierce fights of the public companies in the courtrooms in Delaware that have gradually shaped the corporate law of Delaware. At other times – like when I realized that the SAFE (国家外汇管理局) style and extent of foreign exchange administration are not common or when I heard that 94% of US public M&A deals valued at over US$100 million were litigated in 2013, which is in contrast to the fact that none of the transactions I worked on for seven years of practice in China were litigated – I’d think “Ha, the practices in other countries are actually so different.” Being at Penn Law also provided me with the opportunity and, most importantly, the mental space to take another look at my career and determine the direction I’d like it to head towards. In the cross-border M&A classes, the professors (who were law firm partners) would share certain aspects of the deals they worked on. The complexity of those transactions and the role lawyers played there were really intriguing. A couple of months into the fall semester, I decided to make efforts to find a position in the US.

At a more practical level, my year at Penn (including the NY Bar exam preparation) narrowed the gap in my understanding of the US laws and practices and those a US BigLaw firm would expect from its associates. It also prepared me (from both language and knowledge perspectives) for a highly professional workplace with English as the working language. Penn Law offers many corporate and securities law-related courses, ranging from basic corporations courses and securities regulations courses to advanced corporate law: mergers and acquisitions and seminar courses covering specific aspects, including corporate governance issues, transactional drafting, and mergers through the business cycle. The basic and advanced corporations courses (mostly taught by full-time faculties) laid out the structure and the basics of the subject matter and provided a roadmap of the evolvement of the relevant statutes and case laws. The seminar courses, many of which are taught by law firm partners, leveraged materials used in recent transactions and brought the then current legal practices and the practitioners into the classrooms. Passing the NY Bar exam is simply the entry-level requirement for a position with most (if not all) major firms in New York. Without passing the NY Bar exam, a lawyer will not be able to keep their position in his/her firm.

3. What advice would you give to people who are looking to stand out in a job application for a global law firm?

Strike a balance between distinguishing yourself from others (i.e. emphasizing what unique value or perspective you are bringing to the team) and demonstrating your capability and willingness to adopt, and adapt to, the firm’s ways of working. This is particularly important for foreign students who are looking to join a firm’s offices in the US or the UK. A lot of global firms value diversity and believe that diversity boosts creativity and drives innovation. However, firms do have concerns about candidates who are not native speakers and did not receive the “conventional” legal education in that jurisdiction (e.g. a JD in the US). Candidates need to address these concerns during the application process. In addition, although law firms are constantly changing and evolving, almost every global law firm has a long history and has certain processes and ways of working that it values and applies. An applicant needs to be a team player and demonstrate the capability of fitting in.

Vita Zhu

Vita Zhu is an associate in Shearman & Sterling LLP, New York office. She completed her LLB at Tianjin University and her LL.M. at University of Pennsylvania Law School with distinction. She is qualified in New York.